Adam poses with his works at the exhibition “Anamnesis” at Gallery Woolim in Seoul in February 2020.
Adam with his works at the exhibition “Anamnesis” at Gallery Woolim in Seoul in February 2020 (courtesy of Adam Czelusta)

Powering through: Self-taught photographer Adam Czelusta

Adjusting to a new country can bring huge amounts of stress. But Adam Czelusta powered through and built a life here — and an art career too.

Adam Czelusta and I first crossed paths around 2014, when we both did some work for Groove magazine’s 100th edition. I got to interview human rights champion Yiombi Thona, and Adam’s photography accompanied the article. Later, Adam graciously allowed me to use one of his photos with my follow-up blog post

More recently, when revamping my website, I noticed the wealth of images on display on Adam’s website: He’d even shown his work in galleries here. When I asked him about it, he shared some details about his Korea journey and what led him to stay long-term. He also discussed how hisphotography has evolved and the opportunities that Korea has opened up for him. 

During a Zoom interview earlier in July, we talked about the old days at Groove and about having the opportunity to meet Yiombi Thona on separate occasions about seven years ago. Their photo shoot took place at Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul. 

“It’s really nice for photographing portraits because there’s a lot of interesting light that comes in there and the backgrounds are really good,” he said. And his subject was “a really nice guy” and “super kind,” he recalled.

Something adventurous

Adam moved to Korea in August 2010. Before that he was living in Buffalo, New York, and was looking for “something adventurous.”

“I was volunteering with a literacy organization there so that’s what set off the teaching ESL thing,” he wrote in an email message before the interview. “At that time I heard about teaching abroad in Korea. I was at a time in my life where it was a perfect opportunity to just go for it. When I first arrived in Korea to teach ESL I just thought it would be for one year.”

When we spoke in July, Adam and his new wife were still making plans to move in together. She’s Korean, they got married in April, and he was arranging for another tenant to replace him at his current place. They’re both studying graphic design and have a small Etsy shop that they’re building together.

“I don’t know if I’d label it like an official business yet,” he said.

Photography is still Adam’s creative outlet, not a full-time occupation. He works at a private elementary school where he’s enjoying the chance to apply his graphic design skills: by updating the textbooks, for example, and by doing the layout for a school newspaper that he created along with the students.

Powering through

But his transition to life in Korea when he arrived here in 2010 wasn’t all that smooth. Adam was a philosophy major with a music background and limited teaching experience as a volunteer tutor. He found it difficult to meet the expectations of the after-school English academy (“hagwon”) where he worked.

“I remember the feeling of … I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “I felt like I couldn’t do it because it, like, it felt like it wasn’t me.” 

His teaching colleagues all seemed to be extroverts, unlike him.

“And maybe it was partly because I didn’t really understand the whole job. And I didn’t need to really be all like loud, and like goofy and stuff, for the students. But I remember my first week, I thought, like, I couldn’t do that. That’s not my personality.” 

The head teacher at the hagwon compared Adam to one of his co-workers. “Can you be like this other person?” the head teacher asked. “He’s more entertaining and like not … I know your style is more academic, but can you be a little bit more goofy?” 

“And I’m like, no, like, that’s not how I act,” Adam recalled thinking.

But that’s “the hagwon business,” he said. “It’s always like that at hagwons. Like, I’ve worked at some private schools and public schools, and they’re — you know, they don’t talk like that to me, or I don’t think to anybody else.”

Over time he realized he could develop his own style and expose the kids to different personality types. He knows teachers need to be entertaining, he said, “but you don’t have to act like a goofball all the time.”

He even thought about quitting and going back to the States. 

“I remember that first week was hard, though. It was hard for me. I remember talking to my mom, like, I think I’m going to come back. This isn’t me.”

Still, he didn’t want to just give up.

“I didn’t want to throw in the towel. I didn’t want to quit, ’cause … it’s kind of a long road to get approved and, you know, get hired sometimes.”

To get hired for teaching jobs in Korea and get the necessary visas, applicants have to submit paperwork and go through police screening. For Adam, as an American, that meant an FBI check. 

“So I didn’t, like, I didn’t want to give up. I remember that. Like I remember feeling I couldn’t do it. But I also didn’t want to give up ’cause … it was like months leading up. I remember it was months leading up to like, actually flying over there. So it would have been kind of lame to give up after one week.” 

He decided to “power through” the challenge. “And you know, it worked out. It worked out.”

Art and inspiration

Getting his work into galleries wasn’t that complicated, he said in his email. But it took many years to find his style and build up the confidence to show his work. 

Most of his exhibited work is work he printed out in a darkroom. “I learned darkroom printing to further understand photography, and I just love printing my own stuff. I’m such a big fan of tangible artwork,” he wrote.

For Adam, “watching people reacting in person with artwork is exciting to see,” and much more rewarding than having people look at it on their smartphones. 

He spoke of his efforts to push his limits as a photographer.

“I did a series of long exposure, abstract photography with a medium format camera recently that I showed at a small gallery,” he wrote. “It was a chance for me to get a little weird. They turned out interesting enough for me to print out and exhibit. They actually look much better in print.”

Being in Korea, he said, has driven him to try harder and to pursue his interests in photography and graphic design. 

“It is inspiring living in such a large city,” Adam wrote. “There’s so much access to art galleries and museums. It really can help drive your creativity and inspire.”

He started out photographing events from Seoul’s indie music scene, using digital photography. Later, he shifted to film photography. 

“Mostly doing just street photography on film. There is so much going on everywhere and so much to explore in Seoul. When I go out and shoot I tend to look for interesting patterns, shadows, making orderly compositions in this cramped city and odd things I find. I don’t necessarily always restrict myself to neat and orderly photos. A lot of times I like photos that feel a bit ‘off balance,’ it really depends on the scene, how I feel and how I see it through my viewfinder. Sometimes I see something with my eye that could work, look through the viewfinder and decide that it would make a shit photo and just move on.”

But the opposite can happen too, he said, and he realizes later that he should have taken the shot. 

“I shoot anything I might find interesting, try to compose it in an interesting way and see if it works later once the film is processed.” 

A lot of photos never make it to the public eye, he said. 

Going beyond the basics

When we spoke, Adam confirmed that he’s entirely self-taught: He learned from reading, experimentation and visits to art galleries. He also talked about his transition from digital photography to film and explained why it was important to him to learn to print out his work in a darkroom.

Digital cameras taught him the basics of photography, he said, but moving over to film had always been a goal of his. 

“And once I felt comfortable with how to actually use the camera, technically, then I went over to film,” he said, using older cameras where “you have to do more of the work like light metering and, you know, choosing the shutter speed and all that stuff.” 

He got a 35-millimeter camera and “just kept practicing,” even though it meant “wasting a lot of film, spending a lot of money on film.” 

Then he shifted over to medium-format photography, calling it “a little bit more involved” and another step in his evolution.

“I don’t know if this sounds cynical,” he said, but he doesn’t use hashtags on Instagram.

He’d rather print his work out and “invite people to come and actually, like, experience it. And I don’t know if that sounds clichéd, too, but, you know, there’s something there if you’re like, if you print out something that you, you know, captured in your camera, on film, and then you blow it up, you bring it and then you do all this work, and — and that process is more meaningful than just like clicking a few buttons and sending it on, you know, into the void of social media.”

Picking the right photos for a collection, putting them on a wall and having people interact with them is the kind of sharing he prefers. But with social media he fears it’s “maybe starting to get lost in some way. I hope not.”

I said it didn’t sound clichéd, but it sounded old-fashioned.

That’s part of Adam’s personality too, he said. He likes “classic things,” “old-style stuff,” and creating artwork with his hands. 

Planning for the future

In a way it was his first student in Buffalo who helped set him on his current path.

“He was a college student from … I think it was from Ethiopia, I think, if I remember? His name was Bika.”

Adam met with Bika once a week for six or seven months. 

“And he actually — he was the one who encouraged me to come to Korea,” Adam said. “’Cause I remember talking to him about it, and he was like, yeah, you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. … So yeah, I kind of credit him a little bit also, for coming over here.”

Yet when I asked if he was here to stay he answered, “Not necessarily.” He and his wife have talked about their future plans and they’re keeping an open mind, he said.

“We have reasons why we want to move to the US, ’cause, you know, we want to get some property and, like, have a backyard and all that stuff, which would be nice. But you know, we’re also pretty realistic about … what kind of opportunities can we both have? … We’re not like in a rush to stay anywhere, but we have ideas of where we want to end up. But if it doesn’t happen, I guess it’s not the end of the world. Because we — you know, we do still love it here, you know. I still do. I still like the galleries and all that stuff, even though we can’t really go to them these days.”

Art shows and COVID-19

Though he’d been taking pictures for years, Adam’s gallery career was just getting started when the pandemic started. His first exhibition, “Alone, Gathered and Incomplete,” dealt with loss of identity and consisted of “shadowy figures, silhouettes and stuff.” 

“I felt like I had something a little bit different, where I felt confident in showing it,” he said.

In many of those pictures “it’s just one person silhouetted, like, do you really have an identity if there’s, you know, nobody there to, you know, show it to, I guess?”

That was in July 2019.

“So when I knew I had something a little different to say, and a little different narrative than your typical street photography, then I was like, yeah, I’ll just, I’ll do it, and then it worked out, sort of, I guess,” he said with a laugh. 

Adam’s second show was in a café sometime around December 2019. 

In February 2020, when the COVID-19 situation started to get bad, he exhibited work in a small gallery on the first floor where visitors could “pop in really quick” and walk out. Titled “Anamnesis,” the show featured abstract works that represented subconscious memories.

“I had like an opening and had like a little gathering, which was nice. But that’s when COVID was really climbing up.”

COVID-19 disrupted his plans. 

“I felt like I was gaining momentum at that time, though. You know, like, I was planning on maybe doing a show like once a year, or maybe even twice a year if I could, but you know, COVID just screwed that up for me pretty big.” 

Korea was entering its fourth wave when we spoke, and Adam had hoped to show some of his abstract works in the near future. But “COVID kind of like knocked the winds out of my sails,” he said, adding that it wasn’t worth it to pay the rent for gallery space now or even seek out free space in cafés.

“So we’ll see. Maybe in the fall, I hope.”

Images of Korea

Though not all his work is about Korea, his online portfolio contains many images of the country. One series of photographs is titled “Seoul 2020.” One is titled “Jeju Island.” Another, “I Saw Water,” celebrates the Han River and its tributaries. 

“That’s inspired by the Han River and all those areas, cause I always felt like those areas were quite interesting.” Most of his work is in black and white, but this series is in color because of the contrasts between greenery and concrete,between the tall bridges and the waterways below.  

“And in all those photos I tried to capture, like, the massive like weight of those — those bridges hanging over … the tiny people in the photos you can see. And I thought that contrast and the juxtaposition of that is, was, interesting to me. So … that’s like, Han River inspired, I guess, or Seoul inspired. I don’t know.”

Studio Dry Liquid

Adam and his wife began creating designs together as a hobby at first. They mostly made posters and postcards. “And we realized we had all this work that we did, you know, and it’s just sitting on our computer.”

The result was Studio Dry Liquid.

“Well, why don’t we just try to make a little shop and try to sell this stuff?” he remembered thinking. “Because we thought it was good stuff. We thought it was good design work. So we’re like, well, why not? We just put it up there. And, you know, whatever, just put it up and see what happens. Like, not make a big thing about it.”

They started the shop about a year ago. “And, you know, it’s been a little bit on hiatus lately, because she got a job and started working full-time. And, you know, I’ve had a lot … stuff gets in the way, you know, and it’s hard to maintain that stuff. Like, you know, you got to have like an Instagram following.”

Adam suggested maybe he was “old and out of touch,” saying that despite being technically savvy and computer savvy he didn’t feel very savvy when it came to getting social media followers.

“So it’s been on hiatus for now,” he said, but after the move he and his wife will have some office space and can pick it up again — maybe in another month or two.

“You know, plus COVID,” he said, giving an additional reason for the hiatus. “Like, we’re going to try to like get in some design fairs, because we’ve been to some before in Seoul, but obviously, I don’t think they’re having them now. So that’s another way to … reach people.”

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